Yabby Lake

You might know Yabby Lake for its wines. The wines from winemaker Tom Carson are exquisite, and the subject of many a wine review containing rapturous hyperbole. The 2014 pinot noir quite famously won the Jimmy Watson Trophy – Australia’s most prestigious wine gong. It was the first pinot noir to do so.

The cellar door is a welcome breath of casual air, despite the lofty reputation of the wines. It’s a nice place to stand and taste a few of the award-winning wines while staring at either the sculpture collection, the view across the vineyards, or that Jimmy Watson Trophy in the cabinet. Take a little time to try the single block wines if you have the opportunity – they are a stunning lesson in terroir*.

The tasting is a lovely prelude to a long lunch. The menu is casual but sophisticated, the plates generous but refined.

There are few better ways to spend an afternoon than sitting in front of a view drinking some of Australia’s best wines, eating good food, and pondering the artworks. The Kirby family are well known patrons of the arts in Australia, and the collection at Yabby Lake is significant.

The attention to detail extends right to the end (or the beginning, depending on your preference) with expertly made Market Lane coffee.

* a French term which roughly translates as ‘the influence of all things local to a place upon the end product’.

Bill and Beat’s

‘Where did you get the name?’ The first and most obvious question about Bill and Beat’s has the most wonderful answer. Owner Jenna’s grandparents, William and Beatrice, were an inspiration for hospitality. The shed was always open for beers, and the kitchen was always open for food. Yay for Bill and Beat – what a great tradition to pass on!

The coffee here is a standout. OHO’s old friends at Mansfield Coffee Merchant supply the sacred beans, and they’re handled with care and consistency that makes us smile.

Don’t be fooled by the small shopfront. Bill and Beat’s is big enough to do three- to four-hundred covers on a Sunday. There’s a big room out back with a kind of communal beer-hall vibe that’s heaps of fun, and a function room upstairs.

All the cakes are made in house; if you’re lunching, try the house-made gnocchi with its little bit of crunch from finishing in the pan with butter.

Little Lipari

Great restaurant names are like rings on a stranger’s fingers – they all have a story, and you need to find out what those stories are. Lipari is a little town off the coast of Sicily, and chef/owner Joe’s mother was from there. She was also the inspiration behind the opening of this place. Joe was a latecomer to commercial kitchens – following a dream, he quit his job of many years. Little Lipari is a labour of love, a passion for food and a show of humble hospitality, inspired by his mother.

Little Lipari is classic Italian generous hospitality, and it’s goddamn awesome. Joe takes seasonal produce (and the stuff his adoring customers bring him) and packs flavour into simple Italian dishes. The gnocchi is iconic, a true classic. Joe makes a light lemony hollandaise for his take on eggs Benedict with bartered lemons from a customer.

Coffee at Lipari is a classic Italian thing too – a typically dark and luscious roast.

The fit-out was inspired by local legend Tank, whose artwork adorns the town of Shepparton, most recognisably in the form of colourful fibreglass cows.

Ten Minutes by Tractor

Earning ‘hats’ in the restaurant trade is a vexed thing. It can become an obsession for those who just can’t quite make the grade. But the reality is, for those who have ‘it’, ‘the knack’, ‘the x-factor’ – it just happens. Ten Minutes by Tractor has all of that, and sitting down to one of the memorable lunches of a lifetime, it felt like things happened easily. The atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable, the staff cheerful and courteous.

Obviously, this appearance belies the preparation and hard work that actually goes on to make it look easy. Chef Stuart Bell has been perfecting the food here for nine years, and before that with the likes of Phillipe Mouchel, Langtons and Liberté, and Alain Fabrègues at Loose Box, as well as Jacques Reymond. His food is an exercise in yin and yang, a balancing act. It’s visually stunning, and the chef’s philosophy is apparent in the flavours.

Of course, the food is only half the picture at Ten Minutes by Tractor. Equal attention is paid to the creation of cold-climate wines of great quality. Leave a little extra time to go through the whole range. The Estate wines age beautifully, so it’s worth taking home more than one, because they’re hard to keep for too long without opening.

Port Phillip Estate

It’s an unassuming introduction to Port Phillip Estate, through a door that feels a little bit industrial and a little bit James Bond. It opens out into the most extraordinary view across the fields to the ocean, with cellar door and casual bistro to the right, and more formal restaurant to the left.

There is a kind of curious dissonance in the slightly casual chairs and the formal settings, the friendliness of the staff and the formality of the restaurant fit-out. It’s like the formality has been dialled down in a venue where the quality has been dialled way up. It’s a feeling that carries through to the food. It’s hard to describe the visceral experience of sitting in front of such beautiful food. It’s an exercise in the balance of beautiful presentation without overshadowing the beautiful produce. Desserts are a stunning display of skill, but still don’t overshadow the produce they’re made from. That produce is locally sourced wherever possible, and the menu is seasonal.

The cellar-door experience is worth leaving a little extra time for. The wines of the estate are renowned for their quality.

For those wanting a little more time to take it all in, the accommodation is spectacular and shares that view across the fields to the ocean.

Alexandra Hotel

The Alex Hotel is one of those iconic country pubs that you pass on a trip as you slow to 50kph through a small town, and wonder ‘Should I have stopped there for lunch?’

Yes, you should have.

The hotel is a grand old white building which has established a bit of a reputation under successive owners – fun in the evenings if you’re staying nearby, and a solid option for breakfast or lunch if you’re passing. The new owners have introduced a clever take on old-fashioned pub dishes like fish and chips, with the welcome addition of crispy capers and a twist on the choice of  fish.

The owners have pedigree in running hospitality businesses, and it shows. They’ve been quick to step the menu and wine list up a notch, and the range of their own farm-gate produce on sale looks inviting.

Worth the stopover.

Source Dining

Returning to this establishment was like coming home to the open arms of beautiful old friends, even after the passage of several years, a change of ownership, and a change of name.

The former Annie Smithers Bistrot of Piper St, Kyneton, is one of those revered country establishments. We found the wonderfully understated dining room just as we left it; the wine list has only improved, and the food from chef and new owner Tim Foster is truly worthy of its Good Food Guide hat.

We had the best hospitality experience here: greeted warmly, waited on with joy and professionalism, given stunning wine suggestions – and all before we’d had any food.

The same ‘Source’ refers to the provenance of the food. It’s definitely a seasonal produce–driven menu. Much of that produce comes from Tim’s garden, planted and grown with love at his home in Sedgewick. The small potager garden at the restaurant serves as a reminder of this, as well as being a practical place to fetch herbs during service. In summer months, long dinners in the garden would be stunning. Everything we ate – risotto, duck, ice-creams – it was all just so goddamn beautiful. Stunning to look at, and delicious in every way. Kyneton is lucky to have a local like this. Go there.

Deirdre’s

All good destination food venues have something unique. It could be the view, the remote location, or the proximity to something else amazing. All have one thing in common. Someone had the audacity to stick an unmissable culinary experience in a location that’s off the beaten track.  Deirdre’s is the definition of all of that. Literally in the middle of an olive grove, up a track, somewhere in the wilds outside of Horsham at the base of one of those stunning rock escarpments. It’s also unmissable.

Everywhere we went in Horsham, people asked us if we were going to Deirdre’s, and how much time we’d allowed. Deirdre defines hospitality in the true sense of the word, not as an industry. Food comes when she’s cooked it. She brings it out to you. It’s bloody fantastic. So are the wines, the majority of which are local. You don’t come here for a quick bite to eat – and why would you. The location is enough to slow your world right down. Drink a few vinos, munch on the bread with the property’s own olive oil, and just chill.

Deirdre’s food is simple, full of flavour, and beautifully executed. She uses great produce, and just lets it do the talking. Confit duck and cauliflower puree is just that, and sublime. Vegans are well catered for with a dish of lentils and many garden veg, pickles, and herbs. This accidental chef knows how to turn up the natural flavours. (Deirdre says she kind of fell into it, because she liked to cook a bit.)

Deirdre’s, the quirky shed in the middle of an olive plantation, is well worth the detour. Just book, and allow some time to relax and go with the flow.

Baa 3400

Horsham has some compelling reasons to stay and eat— Baa 3400 is one of the best. Located in the light-filled space at the front of the Horsham Regional Art Gallery, Baa 3400 is filled by a large shared table (though not the only seating option), and promises ‘memorable dining experiences’. Memorable is the right word, in the best of ways.

Hugh and Nicole Goldson say they never really intended to stay on in Horsham after a stint managing the restaurant at a well-known Horsham hotel, but the opportunity ‘just kind of presented itself’. It’s a good thing that it did – the food is killer. The right balance of hearty and fresh, the menu is tight and focused. There are small bar plates, larger meal plates, and some in between. It’s all designed for sharing, though there’s no shame in keeping all that sticky lamb shoulder to yourself, or polishing off all the scallops before anyone else gets a look-in.

Where possible, everything is sourced locally. Hugh reminded us that even the ocean is not really that far away, if you point the car at Port Fairy.

One unique concept was the bold statement made by their putting on just the one beer. It’s brewed especially for Baa 3400, and is rather good. The wine list is a nice mix from around the Grampians and further afield. Be sure to book – it can get busy, especially when the gallery has a show on.

La Bonta

La Bonta is a classic Italian-style dining experience in the middle of Kyneton’s Piper St hot-spot. Everything from the Sambuca to the food and the hospitality bring the things we love about Italian food culture. It’s warm, generous, honest and delicious. At La Bonta all the produce is local and fresh, and robust flavours are delivered with a finesse that top chef and owner Tim Austin seems to pass off with ease.

La Bonta runs a yearly foodies trip to Italy – this year it’s in Tuscany, and sadly, all booked out. It’s easy to imagine this food in that place, with the flavours and presentations a true modern interpretation of that origin. The wine list is an almost 50-50 mix of Italian and local. Imported favourites from the likes of Montepulciano sit comfortably with Heathcote’s finest. Along with being a highly credentialed chef, Tim is also a sommelier of no small skill. It shows on this list, which rated on Gourmet Traveller Wine’s 2017 Best Wine List.

Watch La Bonta’s social media and email newsletter for upcoming events. The calendar reads like a wish-list of to-do’s for the next six months, with a truffle dinner, long wine lunches, a masterclass in sparkling wine and Christmas food and, of course, that trip to Italy.